If one thing defines this summer for me, it’s been open water swimming. From the Heb Tri to being in the water with the kids, it’s all been about wetsuits and waves.
If you’d told me two months ago that I’d be saying that, I wouldn’t have believed you – but there you go. Sometimes opportunities come along at just the right time.
Until July, swimming was something I did in the pool – and mostly in the winter when the weather is too rubbish to run or cycle outside. Outdoor swimming was for other people – usually nutters.
There is no denying that it has become a ‘thing’ but I’ve always been in two minds about whether it looked fun and whether it could ever be for me.
I’m a Leodhasach. I know how cold the sea gets here – we’ve all jumped in, shrieked, and jumped out again very quickly, even if only as kids – and it’s always looked like hard work too. And I belong to the Billy Connolly school of thought. “We don’t belong in there! There’s things in there that bite us!” etc etc.
Fast forward, then, to the evening of Saturday, July 6 and I’m wondering what I’m doing down on Coll beach with Colin S Macleod, our very own ‘King of the Minch’, and my cousin Ann.
We’re in our wetsuits and it’s baltic. Summer, my eye. There’s a northerly blowing.
“So,” starts Colin. “What are you hoping to get out of this…?”
Well, two things. One – I’m doing the triathlon in a few weeks and although I’ve registered as part of a team I’m now wondering if I could give the whole thing a go myself….
Two – I also want to be able to get in the water with my kids during the summer and really make the most of living here.
One reason is pretty idyllic and aspirational. The other is urgent!
What I was hoping for was effectively a crash course in open water swimming. I needed to be quickly armed with the basic tools to get me round the swim in the triathlon – and it was just three weeks away from the evening we were having our lesson.
The brief on the HebTri is that it’s an Olympic distance triathlon. It starts with a 1.5km swim in Loch an Duna near Bragar, followed by a 40km cycle to Callanish and back, with a wee 10km run tagged on the end for good measure.
I had been training for a few months for the cycle and run – these triathlons allow competitors to enter either solo or as teams of two, with one person doing the swim and the other doing the cycle and run – and had had no word of trying the whole thing myself until Ann put the idea in my head.
She was entering it solo – for the third time – and was adamant that I would be able to do it too.
“If I can do it, you can do it!” she insisted.
Once the seed had been planted, I figured I’d better ask Colin for a lesson quick smart. I thought that if anyone could get me wild swimming quickly, it would be Colin.
But how do you swim in the open water? How do you even get started?
Slowly and simply, it turns out.
On the most basic, practical level, get into the water slowly. Don’t throw yourself in. Walk in, getting used to the cold on your legs, then sit down. After the water has seeped into your suit, dip your face in.
The first time I did this, the water was so cold that I got ‘ice cream head’ almost right away.
One way to combat this is, apart from swimming hoods, to wear two good quality swimming caps, one on top of the other.
After that, you’re ready to make some strokes.
It is different to swimming in a pool but it’s about refining the way you swim rather than doing anything radically different.
Being in the sea and in a wetsuit, you have much more buoyancy and while this is a good thing – it’s really nice to be able to turn over and float on your back, which I did a few times (especially when I needed to calm down) – it also means that you need to use your legs differently.
I was kicking too much, Colin pointed out. I should be letting my legs trail more behind me, with only slight occasional kicks, to avoid breaking the surface with my heels and wasting energy. It’s worth mentioning that in fresh water lochs you are not quite so buoyant, so a bit more kicking is required.
Wild swimming, on a calm day, doesn’t seem to require much change to the arms, as far as I can see, although I’ve since picked up a couple of tips, including that you should shorten your stroke going into any waves.
The other main element we covered was sighting. This is simply the technique to keep you on course in the open water. Not something you ever have to consider in the pool – although you can easily practice it there, and I did later on! – but critical when you’re wild swimming. What Colin advised was to look up every four or six strokes – counting each single arm movement as a stroke.
I got in a bit of a fankle at first but eventually settled on looking up after six strokes before turning to take a breath. I breathe to one side rather than both alternately and while I prefer to breathe to the left I make sure I can also do it to the right. Being able to breathe bilaterally is important when open water swimming so you can have the option of turning your face away from any oncoming waves that could smack you in the face!
Colin likes Coll beach, around five miles from Stornoway, for introductory swimming lessons. Being a long beach, you can do your whole swim lesson in parallel with the shore, so there is always an exit point. For safety, we all had tow floats and I learned that Colin always lets the coastguards know whenever he is going to be out swimming. I did laugh when he said they usually ask him: “How long are you going to be out for, this time…?!”
After we’d had all our pointers, it was time to practice our swimming and sighting. Technically, there was nothing wrong but I have to admit that within about 10 minutes I was in a bad way with the cold. I wasn’t hugely wrapped up – just a wetsuit over a swimsuit – and was seriously struggling.
My colour had also changed – although I hadn’t realised that – and I was starting to feel a bit dizzy and nauseous. Colin registered this and suggested we call it a night. We hadn’t been in the water that long but it was time to get out.
Ann was really cold too – ‘I have never been as cold as that in the water’, she assured me later – and we both needed help getting out of our wetsuits and boots!
Afterwards, I struggled to get my head round how cold I was.
The thought of the triathlon open water swim in three weeks was freaking me out – “What was I thinking?!” – but Ann persuaded me to try a swim in the loch, which is generally a bit warmer than the sea, before making a decision on the event.
Ann was adamant that we would not be that cold during the swim on the HebTri – “I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it was going to be as cold as that!” she said – and we were sure the northerly wind had significantly added to our chill factor at Coll.
Duckman – Colin’s rubber duck thermometer – had measured the water at Coll at 12.7 degrees but Colin said it tended to be a degree over, so it would probably have been 11.7 degrees average.
He reckoned the loch would be a degree or two warmer than the sea on the day of the event but I was worried the cold would still be a problem.
He admitted that my timing had not been ideal.
“A good time of year to start OWS is in the colder months (although it might not feel it at the time) – say in March, sea will be about 6-7 degrees, even if you’re only in the water for 10-15 minutes. That way when it comes to warmer summer temps, you’ll appreciate it more.”
But I didn’t have that time to acclimatise or come to appreciate the milder temperatures. And that’s where my pal Eilidh came in.
She was originally supposed to be my triathlon teammate – my swimmer – and she too was sure I could do it, if only I could be made warm enough.
“I’ll lend you everything I’ve got!” she promised. Sure enough, she kitted me out with a thermal long-sleeved rash vest (what a huge difference that made) and wet suit boots, and out we went for that decision-making swim in Loch an Duna.
Ann didn’t make it that day but another pal, Ep, joined Eilidh and I – and it was great to have their company. They’re both excellent sea swimmers – Eilidh was part of the St Kilda swim team, by the way – and they both coached me along.
Instantly, it was obvious how much warmer this was, compared to Coll beach. There were choppy waters to contend with but, crucially, the temperature felt okay.
It was emotional support as much as anything else, and by the end of our wee swim in Loch an Duna, where Ep reckoned we’d done close to a kilometre, I felt that I’d be able to give the Tri a go, on July 27.
In the event, I did manage to do the whole triathlon myself. And, funnily enough, it was the swim section that I enjoyed the most. I was warm enough and I genuinely enjoyed it. It had been totally surreal but I was almost sorry when it was over and it was time to get on the bike.
I hadn’t appreciated, though, how much that swim was going to take it out of me. I was already knackered when I got on the bike but I managed to complete that 40km ride and 10km run.
I was last over the line but who cares. I’d done it!
Emotionally, it was all pretty overwhelming and it’s still sinking in – but there’s no way I could have done it without Colin and his crash course.
It isn’t meant to be a crash course, of course, but Colin gave me the tools I needed, in the very short time I had available, to complete that 1.5km open water swim.
Last weekend – one week after the HebTri – I took my children, Michael and James, camping to Horgabost beach in Harris. We all had wetsuits and we were all in the water.
As I watched my youngest, James, manage to swim proper strokes in his wee wetsuit at the age of just five, it all seemed to have come full circle.
There were two things I had wanted to get out of that (freezing cold) lesson down in Coll – and here we were. It was the summer of wild swimming, for sure.
- Colin has teamed up with Rodney ‘Cheggs’ Jamieson at SurfLewis & Harris to offer Open Water Swim lessons and Guided Wild Swim Adventures. The Introduction to Open Water Swimming is designed to help people (like me) make the progression from the pool, and guided Wild Swimming Adventures, is about swim tours to hidden locations in Lewis and Harris.
- Colin is a qualified STA Swim Coach and RLSS Lifeguard, and swim safety is always paramount (as is having fun). Visit www.surflewis.com/open-water-sea-swimming-lewis-harris for more information.
- Also visit Colin’s blog, http://www.hebseaswimmer.com/